Mammograms at a Glance
- X-ray of the breast
- Helps with early detection of breast cancer
- Recommended each year starting at the age of 40
Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. And mammograms are an important tool in early detection. Out of every 1,000 mammograms, only 2 to 4 lead to a diagnosis of cancer. But for some women, getting a mammogram can still be scary. Some women are afraid of hearing negative results. And some women are afraid of the discomfort they may have during a mammogram.
Here are answers to some common questions about mammograms. If you are wondering if you need a mammogram or you have put off making an appointment, we hope the answers are helpful and encourage you to get mammograms when you need them.
What Is a Mammogram?
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. It is one way to screen for breast cancer. Mammograms help find growths that are too small to be felt during a breast exam.
A routine mammogram is known as a screening mammogram. Routine mammograms are for women who have no symptoms. A routine mammogram gives health care providers a picture of what is normal for your breasts. Each mammogram will help them see any changes since the last one.
Sometimes mammograms are recommended after a breast exam. This is called a diagnostic mammogram. A diagnostic mammogram might be done if a lump or other changes in the breast are found during a breast exam.
When Should I Get a Mammogram?
Women should get a mammogram every year starting at the age of 40. Yearly mammograms can continue for as long as you are in good health.
In some cases, mammograms are helpful for women younger than 40. A mammogram may be recommended for a younger woman with
- a family history of early breast cancer
- non-cancerous breast lumps — to make sure cancer is not hidden among harmless cysts
Talk to your health care provider if you have any concerns about
- changes in the look, shape, or texture of your breasts, or nipple discharge
- breast cancer or other types of cancer in your family history
You and your health care provider can decide together whether getting a mammogram is right for you.
What Happens During a Mammogram?
When you go for a mammogram, you will be asked to undress from the waist up. A cover-up or wrap will be provided for you.
A technician will be present to position your breasts and take the x-rays. Most technicians are women. But if you have a preference, ask if it is possible to have a female or male technician when you make your appointment.
Only you and the technician will be in the exam room. You will stand in front of a special x-ray machine. One at a time, each breast will be placed onto a plastic platform and then pressed by another plastic plate as the x-rays are taken.
You will feel some pressure. Pressing your breast in this way helps spread out the breast tissue and prevents movement. It also helps get a sharper image of the breast tissue.
These steps are then repeated to get a side view of each breast.
The compression for each breast only lasts a few seconds — the overall procedure takes about 15 minutes. Most women feel uncomfortable when their breasts are being pressed. And some women find it painful. But the discomfort only lasts a few seconds each time. Some women may feel sore after a mammogram.
Next, your x-rays are examined to make sure the pictures don't need to be retaken. At this point the technician is only making sure the pictures are sharp. The technician is not looking for results.
There are things you can do to make a mammogram more comfortable and to get the clearest x-ray:
What Happens After My Mammogram?
A radiologist will read your x-rays and determine the results. Radiologists are doctors trained to interpret x-rays and related tests.
The time it takes to get results varies. You can ask how long it usually takes to get results at the time of your mammogram. But if you haven't heard anything after 30 days, follow up with the radiologist or your health care provider.
Are Mammograms Accurate?
Mammograms are effective but they do have limitations. It is possible to get inaccurate results. In some cases, a suspicious spot on the mammogram will get biopsied and end up being nothing to worry about. In other cases, breast cancer may not be detected with a mammogram.
While mammograms aren't perfect, they remain an important tool in detecting breast cancer. Mammograms should be combined with other tests — clinical breast exams, for example.
Are There Any Risks to Getting a Mammogram?
Some women are concerned about their exposure to radiation from the x-ray. But the amount of radiation from a mammogram is very small. Most experts agree that the benefit of finding breast cancer is much more important than the very small risk of being exposed to radiation during a mammogram.
What If the Results of My Mammogram Are Abnormal?
Not all abnormal results are breast cancer. Your health provider will tell you what other tests you might need, including another mammogram or another test.
There are several other diagnostic tools to confirm mammogram results:
- biopsy — tissue is surgically removed and analyzed for cancerous cells
- core-needle biopsy — a nonsurgical procedure where tissue is removed using a hollow needle
- ultrasound — sound waves are used to visualize lumps. This is a very effective procedure to distinguish fluid-filled cysts from solid tumors.
Where Can I Get a Mammogram?
Ask your health care provider, health department, or staff at your local Planned Parenthood health center about where you can get a mammogram in your area.
Where Can I Get More Information About Mammograms?
American Cancer Society: Mammograms and Other Breast Imaging Procedures
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins